The Trouble with Vamps

I’m taking another one of those leisurely weekends, not doing much and enjoying not being sick for the first time in a month or so. Even though I effed up my checking account (I thought I was paid FRIDAY, and I am actually being paid MONDAY), I treated myself to breakfast via credit card and plowed through George R.R. Martin’s great vampire novel, Fevre Dream

On the surface, Fevre Dream seems to stomp around in territory already covered by Anne Rice and a host of others — angst-ridden vampires on a quest for redemption in the Antebellum south, the lush decadence of New Orleans, the casual violence of the 19th century, the usual arrogant vampire blather about their vast superiority to humanity, bloodletting, and lots of baroque sexiness. If one were to dismiss Fevre Dream on that basis, you’d be missing a great deal and possibly one of the best vampire novels ever written.

I’m not really reviewing Fevre Dream here, but I’m using it as an example, and as something of a cautionary tale for myself. You see, I used to really like vampires. I used to really be into the books, the movies, the stories, the imagery and (of course) the sexuality. Needless to say I was never the type who became so enamored that I started buying clothes at Hot Topic or hanging out in graveyards and drinking Clamato, but I wrote some stories and thought they were cool. I enjoyed the Anne Rice stuff when it first came out (yeah, I’m that old). I remember sitting for my mom’s oil painting class and having her students paint me while I sat in a chair reading Dracula. I even got paid a sitting fee for it.

Unfortunately — and I know I’m far from the first person to say this — something bad happened to vampires. They got popular. Of course they’ve always been popular, but I think Anne Rice unintentionally started a stampede of black lipstick-wearing high schoolers and neo-romantics that resulted in the completely emascualted, defanged and un-scary vampires that we have to put up with today. From an icon of evil, amorality, damnation and soulless self-indulgence, vamps have become the perfect prom date.

Okay, oceans of ink and electrons have been wasted complaining about Twilight and how horrific it is, especially for those hard-core vampire fetishists, so I won’t waste any more energy griping when — hopefully — the last movie will come out soon (a day after my birthday, unfortunately), be a huge monster hit dwarfing more worthy flicks like the lamented (and damnably misnamed) John Carter, and be swiftly consigned to the dustbin of vampire history (hey, I can dream can’t I?). If I trash Twilight I’m pretty much preaching to the choir, so what’s the point?

I mention it primarily as a marked contrast to what I’ve been reading in Fevre Dream. George R.R. Martin is one of the best American fantasists ever (and even if one disagrees with that, there’s no doubt he’s easily the most successful), and his writing shines in Fevre Dream. His characters are well drawn and compelling and even if he’s treading on very familiar ground (or possibly swimming in familiar waters, since this book’s about steamboats as well), this book grabs the reader and doesn’t let go. Not that the evil vamps act in any way that’s unexpected — there’s the usual vain, arrogant and overconfident master vampire who bloviates about his human “cattle,” and casually commits acts of unspeakable sadism. There’s the good guy vampire-turned-vampire-hunter and his tough but fair steamboat-captain partner. There’s the expected lush beauty and decadence contrasted with the filth and misery of the period, and so on. Like I said, it’s familiar territory, but it’s written so well I don’t care.

And there’s the rub. I know that exploring new ways of looking at old tropes is a great thing for a writer, and portraying a vampire as (for example) a friend and protector despite his evil nature is a very compelling notion. Hell, I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m a big Buffy fan, and the way that show explored the clichés was pretty cool. For some reason, I was always rooting for Angel and Spike to find their humanity and save the day, while every time I think about Twilight I want Blade to show up and start chopping off heads (and goddamit, the first Blade movie was freakin’ awesome despite the fact that it was just as clichéd and also borrowed heavily from my old employers’ roleplaying games).

Fevre Dream and the others work so well because even though they all feature relatively “good” vampires, they also spotlight the cruelty and inhumanity of the evil ones. Even though Fevre Dream’s Damon Julian (how can you have a name like that and not be an evil vampire?) acts exactly as I expect an evil master vampire to act, he does so with a relish and character that I can believe. And this is the important part — I really do hate the guy. He’s utterly cruel, selfish, despicable, and god damn do I want to see him with a stake through his heart. In some ways, fantasy fiction fulfills a certain animalistic bloodlust, giving the reader the satisfaction of defeating a particularly cruel and wicked villain without actually risking life and limb or, worse yet, getting put in jail for the rest of one’s natural life. The shackles of ordinary existence and the need to live in a lawful society are released when you read a book like this.

I don’t get the same thrill out of reading Anne Rice. I certainly don’t out of the likes of Twilight, whether or not it features “evil” vampires who are just as dull as its whiney, self-involved protagonists. I’m still in the mindset that if someone transgresses against the life or freedom of others, that person should somehow be punished. To see Rice’s vampires revel in their amorality does nothing for me. And it’s actually worse if they carp and whine about it. Personally I’m of the opinion that Lestat was originally intended to end up as portrayed at the end of Interview, a soulless living corpse suffering through an endless existence in the shell of his old glories. Unfortunately, the character proved so popular that he had to be rehabilitated and his backstory retconned so that he wasn’t REALLY as cruel and sadistic as he seemed to the first book’s narrator.

Apparently all early covers for Fevre Dream portrayed the titular riverboat as a sternwheeler, when she's clearly described as being a sidewheeler. I can understand how Mr. Martin might have gotten a bit frustrated.

(And there’s really nothing wrong with that — the whole concept of an unreliable narrator is awesome, and there are few narrators more unreliable than sad, masochistic, self-loathing vampires. On the other hand, Lestat’s “rehabilitation” into the real hero of the series never worked for me, and I pretty much gave up reading Anne Rice after Queen of the Damned. Mind you, the movie is freaking hilarious, particularly the scene where Lestat climbs up the wall then drops from the ceiling onto the two groupies. Handsome Stuart Townsend is a very good actor, but he appears to have had a string of bad luck in some of his roles, from the aforementioned Queen of the Damned to the unfortunate League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, the promising but cancelled Night Stalker revival — see below — and getting canned by Peter Jackson after being signed on to play Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings because he looked too young. I like the guy and hope he gets a genuine hit eventually.)

Anyway, my goal in writing this post (in addition to letting everyone know I’m still alive) was to eventually get to the point where I explain why I don’t want to write about vampires anymore. I’m currently trying to sell my urban fantasy series The Shepherd (two books done, one in the planning stage, more possible if anyone shows interest, given how crowded the genre is these days), and I made a conscious decision not to blunder into Harry Dresden or Anita Blake’s back yards by avoiding the more traditional monsters like vampires, werewolves and fae creatures. I’m going more in a Lovecraft/Barker direction and focusing on extradimensional/cosmic horror rather than the more familiar kind.

Mind you, I wrote the first version of The Shepherd back in about ’95. Then it was called Descending Angel and it had vampires all over the place. It was also a few years before the big urban fantasy movement, and in many ways anticipated it. No, I’m not claiming that I “invented” the genre or anything so stupid, but I am kicking myself for not following up on it and getting in when the whole movement started to pick up steam. Descending Angel really wasn’t that great — it was overlong, it was episodic and it meandered. I sent it out to Tor in about ’96 and justifiably never heard anything back.

The story originally opened with a prolog (actually it had two prologs, the second of which I rewrote into the current novel) in which the main characters kick ass on a party full of arrogant White Wolf type vampires who sneer at their human cattle and do the usual snooty crap. I took great pleasure in writing about the hero cutting them apart with a sword, burning them with a high-powered UV flashlight (yes, I thought of this years before seeing Blade) and setting them on fire with white phosphorous grenades (really the best way of disposing of vamps, I think). It was fun, but unfortunately it doesn’t really fit with my conception of the series anymore, so it’s gone.

(Oh yeah, it also had a good deal of kinky sex. I think I can share that I sent it out as a short story to a Goth fiction magazine, only to have it rejected with a hand-scrawled note from the editor calling it “A sexist denial of women’s desires.” Jesus Christ. You’d think I’d just knocked over Lestat’s wineglass or something…)

Angel’s ancestry can be traced back to a couple of sources — the aforementioned Anne Rice, White Wolf’s Vampire: the Masquerade and (wonder of wonders)Kolchak: the Night Stalker, the lamentably short-lived TV series starring Darrin McGavin as a rumpled journalist specializing in the weird and unexplained. It kind of degenerate into “monster of the week” with Kolchak facing zombies, vampires, werewolves, undead bikers, sewer monsters, evil Aztec priests, mummies and the like. Though its history was tortuous and Mr. McGavin ended up terribly unhappy with the result, the series was strangely compelling, and has a huge cult following even today. I wrote about a journalist who encounters incomprehensible horrors and is eventually recruited to be a Shepherd — guardian of the doorways that lead to other realities.

Yeah, I had vamps. I had evil ones and good ones. I had an old vamp who had been a cardinal under Rodrigo Borgia, and had actually killed him. The old vamp lamented his evil ways and sought to make amends and eventually, after centuries, took Communion and in the process his humanity was restored. Catholic readers can make of this what they will — I thought that the power of a ritual in which you consume both the flesh and blood of a god was more than enough to cure vampirism, if it was taken with the proper humility and faith. That was actually one of my favorite parts of the book, but in the end I didn’t quite know what to do with it. I consider Angel to be an ambitious failure, and soon the real-life horrors of divorce, unemployment, loss of home and family, bankruptcy and chronic illness shot down my plans to rewrite and market it.

Fifteen years later, Angel is back in an entirely new form, with the focus on demons and alien horror. I took the original story’s prolog (about 50 pages or so) and expanded it to full book length (now about 350 pages and 106,000 words), using the same basic characters and events, adding and expanding until I got something that I’m actually fairly proud of. Every rereading reveals new glitches and the odd tweakings, but overall I think the novel works and would make a fine addition to the current crop of urban fantasy tales.

So why drop the vampires? Well, first off, everyone is writing about vampires these days. They’ve become the shaggy dogs of horror. I don’t want to write about vamps unless I can bring something original to the game, and it seems to me that almost every variation has been explored. We have psychic vampires, bestial animalistic zombie-vampires, good vampires, evil vampires, romantic vampires, cruel vampires, nice vampires, sexy vampires, repulsive vampires, ugly vampires, pretty vampires, cute vampires… Vampires, vampires, vampires. Enough already. I’m not jumping on a bandwagon that’s so crowded it looks like an Indian passenger train.

Werewolves are a little less exploited, and I think more interesting. Wizards/sorcerers are cool too but they’re also kind of overexploited. Given all the wizards named Harry that we’ve got running around lately, I think that’s territory I’d best avoid myself, as the character is in talented hands already. Zombies are also so overdone that they’re tired and weary and falling apart, but I think they’re so generic that no one will care if I use them.

But then again, werewolves and wizards and zombies are also familiar. And so familiar as to be almost comforting in their horrific familiarity. We know what to expect from a werewolf. We know that a zombie’s going to lurch around moaning for brains. We know that we need silver bullets for werewolves and we need all sorts of firearms and machetes for zombies. Familiarity, as they say, breeds contempt.

Okay, okay... There's ONE other reason for liking vampires...

It was actually a rather difficult decision (one member of my writing group who had read Descending Angel was disappointed, and told me that she’d really liked my vampires, which definitely gave me pause), but I decided I wanted to put traditional monsters on the shelf for a while. The Shepherd does feature some undead, but they’re peripheral to the story — a symptom rather than a cause. But I think that vamps and werewolves and the usual stuff of our nightmares as featured on Dark Shadows and Buffy and Supernatural probably need a nice rest in their respective lairs — from my attention anyway. I’ll leave them to others, whom I’m sure will do them more justice.

So there we go. Vampires need to sleep in their coffins for a while. They’re really, really, really tired. They’ve been staked, burned, decapitated, disintegrated, dissolved and dismembered quite enough. They’ve been hated, admired, loved, adored and lusted after enough for one cycle. They’ve gone from creeping creatures of nightmare to well-groomed, sad-eyed, poetry-spewing emo boyfriends. They’ve got fan clubs and t-shirts. They used to burn and now they fucking sparkle.

And they’re sick of it. I’m going to give them a nice long rest.

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